The Outrageous Reason This Picture Cost the Photographer His Job

Reviews were mixed when President Donald Trump appointed Texas governor Rick Perry the Energy Secretary. Rick Perry wasn’t the climate change patriot many Americans were hoping for, and the fact that he publicly supported the Dakota Pipeline only added fuel to the fire. Still, Americans on the other side of the fence were happy to see a previous presidential candidate make the trek to Washington.

But Perry has once again found himself in hot water in the latest bout of perceived government corruption. The Energy Secretary met with the CEO of one of the nation’s largest coal producers, Robert Murray of Murray Energy in March 2017. During the meeting, Murray gave Perry an action plan wish list, which basically became codified months later. Department of Energy photographer Simon Edelman caught their embrace and leaked the photos as evidence. What ensued next was allegations of corruption from one side and subsequent whistleblower claims from the other.

The powers that be may have walked away unscathed from this controversy, but the photographer most definitely did not. Read on to find out what happened between Rick Perry and Robert Murray, the result of their meeting, and how it led to the photographer losing his job.

What exactly happened here?

Rick Perry Robert Murray meeting tweet

Many of Murray’s proposals were pushed through. | Sierra Club via Twitter

Edelman attended a March 2017 meeting between Robert Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry at the Department of Energy Headquarters in Washington. Edelman snapped away on his camera as Murray handed Perry a four-page “action plan” to boost the coal industry and the two embraced in a hug. Seems innocent enough — until media outlets scored copies of the plans. Those plans revealed that many of the proposals provided by Murray were later pushed through by the Trump Administration.

Next: The real reason he felt compelled to publish the photos

Why is this a problem?

Rick Perry Energy Secretary

Rick Perry has been accused of bailing out the coal industries. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Fast-forward a few months and Perry passed The Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule in September. It was dubbed by some as a “bailout” for struggling coal and nuclear industries struggling to make a profit. Other critics claimed the plan only fueled global warming and perpetuated climate change, given that coal is most noxious of all energy sources. The DOE, however, officially states this plan is a way to make utilities pay the plants to keep operating under duress since coal and nuclear plants are the only fuel stores that can keep the grid running during a natural disaster or extreme weather event.

Edelman, a Democrat himself, sat on these meeting photos for months. Then the rule surfaced. To Edelman, the controversial plan that Perry said would help protect the “reliability and resiliency of the nation’s grid” sounded vaguely familiar to the “grid-like phrasing” in the pictures Edelman snapped that day back in March.

Taking meetings very similar to the one with Murray is part of Rick Perry’s job as the Energy Secretary. But Edelman took issue with the timing of the Grid Resiliency Pricing Rule’s debut and the seemingly chummy meeting between the two men.

Next: What did his photos uncover?

A picture is worth a thousand words

Rick Perry Robert Murray hugging tweet

The photo shows an obvious closeness. | Jeffrey Gutterman via Twitter

Edelman’s photographs show Murray displaying a detailed “Action Plan For Reliable And Low Cost Electricity In America And To Assist In The Survival Of Our Country’s Coal Industry.” But it wasn’t until they were published on left-leaning website, In These Times, that speculation of corruption entered the picture.

Edelman told The Associated Press he overheard Murray outlining actions he wanted the Trump Administration to take including, “replacing members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accords, and revoking the Clean Power Plan.”

In an unexpected turn of events, Edelman was placed on administrative leave just days after his photos leaked. The DOE seized his personal laptop and escorted him out of the building.

Next: The real story is what’s happening behind the scenes.

There’s a deeper connection here

Robert Murray donated to Perry’s campaign. | Ben Sklar/Getty Images

Is Edelman onto something or is this just another political conspiracy? Well, for one thing, the money trail between both Rick Perry and Robert Murray is a long one — none of which helps paint this controversy in a better light. Perry received six-figure donations from Murray Energy during his presidential campaign in 2012, including the profits from a $2,500 per head fundraiser event in 2011.

In These Times reports Murray also gave $300,000 to President Trump’s inaugural campaign, stating it is the “likely most vital election for America in our lifetimes.”

Murray came under FEC investigation around that same time for urging his employees to give money to the Republican campaigns. A former salaried employee filed a lawsuit against him and his peer pressuring ways.

Next: So what happened to Edelman?

You’re fired!

Energy Secretary Rick Perry Delivers Remarks At Energy Policy Summit In DC

Edelman lost his job for sharing the photos. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In addition to meeting photos, snapshots of the actual deal, exposing confidential writing of the action plan were also leaked to the press. It wasn’t long until administrative leave with pay morphed into a formal termination of employment for the photographer.

The government didn’t renew Edelman’s contract and he spoke publicly about the injustice of his firing. Though the DOE doesn’t agree, Edelman accused the agency of retaliation. He is seeking protections provided to federal whistleblowers.

Next: Just follow the money

Where the money is

Coal Exec Robert Murray

Coal companies are donating to get what they want. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Edelman hoped the photos would derail plans for the controversial new rule. But federal regulators ultimately rejected the plan in January 2018 for many reasons that go beyond the photo intel. His photo controversy calls attention to a broader issue, though, which may suggest Edelman’s distaste for government corruption is valid.

Coal companies are donating millions to political campaigns in record amounts, just as other wealthy donors contributed to Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives years ago. While they subscribe to the “pay to play” government narrative, the American people remain frustrated over the government’s tendency to simply go where the money is.

Next: The future of coal

What’s next for energy?

Coal production at one of the open fields in the south of Siberia

The government is pulling back on environmental protection regulations. | EvgenyMiroshnichenko/iStock/Getty Images

But back to the issue at hand. Robert Murray called the rule “the single greatest action that has been taken, in decades, to support low-cost, reliable electric power in the United States.” Despite its rejection, energy companies will continue to vie for political power one way or another. And America is still waiting to see how President Trump will tackle the issue of climate change and energy simultaneously.

The EPA recently repealed the Obama administration’s policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that hurt the coal industry’s profits. They say this policy will help develop America’s energy resources and reduce regulatory burdens associated with developing these resources. Others say it goes against the Paris Climate agreement to reduce emissions and stall global warming.

Next: What’s left for the photographer?

Does Edelman have a case?

A plume of exhaust extends from the a coal-fired power plant.

If what he said was true, it’s definitely concerning. | Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

As described in the In These Times article, Edelman claimed he heard Perry say “I think we can help you on this” after Murray presented his meeting “wish list” that would benefit his corporation supremely. However, Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes denies any improper or suspicious actions during the meeting.

“The assertions that this individual has made about Secretary Perry and the Department of Energy are ridiculous. Industry and other stakeholders visit the Department of Energy on a daily basis. The secretary welcomes their input and feedback to strengthen the American energy sector.”

This is not a statement Edelman agrees with. He’s hired a lawyer who specializes in whistleblowing to help him get his equipment back. He argues the photos were in the public domain and not classified, therefore he had constitutional right to release them. No matter the results, Edelman hopes this story inspires others to expose corruption. He also would like his equipment back.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @la_hamer.

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